How to tackle mental health at the workplace

Mental health issues are increasingly being considered as a major psychosocial risk at the workplace, especially during these trying COVID times. If not managed properly, mental health issues at work can pose serious risks to performance and productivity. Employers and employees may be unwilling to talk about stress, anxiety and depression openly, in light of negative associations with weakness and failure.

Mental health has two sides; mental wellbeing and mental illness. The term mental wellbeing refers to the state of wellbeing in which the individual realises their own abilities, can cope with the day to day stresses of life, work productively and is able to contribute to the community.

The term mental illness is a recognised and medically diagnosable illness. Mental disorders can be treated similarly to physical diseases: prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.

Josef Bugeja, Secretary General of the General Workers Union says that today there is more knowledge for trade unions and employers on this issue. 

“A few years back, it was difficult to discuss mental health as we lacked the knowledge to understand the signs. As more people started to talk about it, trade unions felt the need to understand mental health issues better but we lacked the knowledge. This was not just an issue for trade unions, but also certain human resources did not understand and attributed the lack of work due to motivation rather than sickness. As GWU, we understood the importance of mental health wellbeing”, remarked Mr Bugeja. 

In 2019, the GWU adopted an organisational policy on Mental Health, where top officials within the trade union attended a course tackling mental health first aid.

Regarding the importance of mental health at the place of work, Mr Bugeja said that, “Having a fulfilling job can be good for your mental health and general wellbeing. Good mental health at work and good management go hand in hand and there is strong evidence that workplaces with high levels of mental wellbeing are more productive and efficient. By having a well-structured policy and receiving proper mental health care, productivity increases, absenteeism decreases, and total medical costs decrease. Having a healthy workforce that shows up to work in a good frame of mind, ready to work benefits the individual and the whole organisation.”

Good mental health at work and good management go hand in hand.

Individuals spend a large part of their lives at work and therefore, it is clear that a mentally healthy workplace and a supportive work environment will benefit both employees and employers, in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and job satisfaction. 

The management needs to be aware of potential symptoms and behaviours that can indicate a possible mental health issue. Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders are common. Sudden changes in behaviour could indicate that the person is experiencing a mental health problem or a pre-existing mental health condition has resurfaced and requires treatment and support. With early and appropriate treatment and support, the majority of people with mental health difficulties recover and can continue to work productively throughout the recovery period. 

The symptoms one can observe that might indicate a decline in mental health and wellbeing can include lateness and disorganisation, signs of withdrawal and lack of productivity.

An employee might spend more time at the office, seem over confident and might refuse to cooperate with peers. Sick leave might be availed of more often, after a record of regular attendance and might find difficulty to follow instructions or become forgetful.

A mentally healthy workplace and a supportive work environment will benefit both employees and employers.

So what can be done to aid such employee who might be suffering from mental health issues?

A person might not admit to experiencing mental health issues for a number of reasons, including stigma related to mental illness. People are often unwilling to disclose a mental health problem because of their peers’ reaction. They might fear that mental illness will leave them open to discrimination, or might limit their opportunities for career advancement. They may not be sure who they should talk to or what exactly to say. In some instances, people may not recognise that they have a mental health problem or they are in denial.

Josef Bugeja advises, “stigma leaves a profound impact on how people feel about themselves and how those around them perceive them. The bright side is that a lot is being done about this, and a lot can be done on an individual level. We need to be aware of our own attitudes and behaviours. Education also plays a big role. We need to educate ourselves more. Finally, and possibly the most important point is support. We need to treat those around us with dignity and respect. We need to support those around us who may need help and offer practical assistance. Sometimes listening without judgement is enough. By talking about mental health illness, we are normalising such issues which tend to be invisible.”

Managers can also opt to provide work related adjustments, such as flexible work schedules and remote working incentives, restructuring of tasks and help in time management.

There are a number of individuals who are discouraged or afraid of speaking up about their struggle with mental health in their workplace. In the long run, unaddressed mental health issues cause more harm, as it tends to worsen once additional issues start cropping up.

To prevent mental health issues from taking over one’s life, it is important that they are treated appropriately and in a timely manner.

If you are struggling to cope for any reason, make sure to reach out to someone you trust and speak to a professional. No one should fight these battles alone.

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